LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - DreamWorks Animation SKG's strong $59.3 million opening weekend for 3-D movie "Monsters vs. Aliens" signals that Hollywood's greater reliance on the third dimension is popular with audiences.
Going into the movie's Friday opening, Hollywood was watching to see how commercially viable 3-D had become for big-budget films like the animated "Monsters vs. Aliens."
The movie set an opening weekend record with more than $33 million on 3-D screens, and its total take of $59.3 million in the United States and Canada, including traditional 2-D theaters, was at the high end of analysts' forecasts.
As a result, DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the industry's biggest 3-D cheerleaders, said Hollywood is paying attention.
"I think this is the beginning of an era and I think we're going to see a lot of very exciting films and filmmakers working using this new technique," Katzenberg told Reuters.
While 3-D movies with comparatively smaller budgets have performed well in recent months, "Monsters vs. Aliens" cost more than $165 million. The last 3-D Hollywood film to approach that budget was the dog tale "Bolt," which has earned about $290 million worldwide since late November.
"Monsters vs. Aliens," in which Reese Witherspoon voices a 50-foot-(15-meter-)tall newscaster recruited to help battle an alien invasion, played on 2,080 3-D screens in North America, making use of nearly every available screen equipped with the technology. About 40 3-D films are scheduled to play in theaters in the next three years.
"My hope is that within the next 18 month in North America we'll get to 7,000 or 8,000 (3-D) screens, which is what we need to be able to accommodate two wide releases at the same time," said Katzenberg, whose studio will release all future movies in 3-D.
Analysts say "Monsters vs. Aliens" could have done better at the box office had the credit crunch not hampered the rollout of expensive digital equipment needed to screen 3-D movies. DreamWorks had originally hoped "Monsters vs. Aliens" would open on 5,000 3-D screens.
Before the movie's release, Katzenberg had said he hoped theaters could charge a $5 premium for 3-D viewing of "Monsters vs. Aliens," But analysts said the surcharge averaged between $3 and $3.50. The average ticket price last year was about $7, according to the National Assn. of Theater Owners.
Michael Lewis, CEO of 3-D technology company RealD, said the surcharge was still a considerable financial boon, given the recession's clampdown on consumer spending.
On Monday, analysts with investment services firm J.P. Morgan said the film could generate a total of $238 million in the U.S. and Canada, well above the original consensus forecast of $190 million. But Goldman Sachs said it expected the film to make $160 million, in part because the poor economy will discourage repeat 3-D viewing.
DreamWorks Animation stock ended 1.1% lower at $21.20 on the Nasdaq Monday, outperforming a broadly weaker market. Its 52-week range is $32.73 to $17.32.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Carol Bishopric